She approached tentatively from the back of the room where my team was leading a workshop about our special needs friendly VBS. When she reached me she excitedly said, “I didn’t know you had been a part of this VBS! I was in your special needs workshop this morning about inclusion. I’m just trying to get everything I can about special needs while I’m here.”
At that point I recognized her from the top of her head, which is all I had seen during my workshop because it was all that was visible as she frantically scrawled notes trying to take down every word I had said. We talked briefly about the VBS and how exciting the theme was. Then she posed an unusual question.
“Do you think I could do this with four special needs kids. Do you think we could save four with this?”
Something in her eyes conveyed that she wasn’t using “save” in the salvific sense and something in my eyes revealed my confusion at the question. Immediately her eyes began to pool with tears. Taking her arm, I pulled her away from the crowd and said the words that are sure to reveal much more to me than any sales pitch – “tell me about your ministry.” As the tears coursed freely down her face she told me the following story.
She began by describing a familiar scenario. There was a special needs mom in her church with a 17-year-old son with autism. She talked about the struggles her ministry had seen this family endure for years, like how much trouble the mother had holding down a job because of the need to care for her son. She talked about the issues that mother had getting therapy paid for by the insurance company and of her battles securing the “least restrictive environment” in public school. She told of the personal stress and illness that mother had endured, as she seemed to be in a constant state of struggle.
Then her tears began to flow with such abandon that we found a more secluded place to finish her story. This children’s minister then told me how difficult it had been to engage the son at church. She admitted to feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at the prospect of either including him in the classroom or providing a quiet room where only he and a caregiver could be alone. She said that the relationship with the family was on again off again for years as the stresses of daily living would sometimes cause them to drift away from church attendance.
“We just didn’t know what to do,” she continued, “We wanted to help, we really did – but we just didn’t have the resources and the tools to know how to. But if we’d known what to do, it wouldn’t have happened. She was so desperate. We knew it. And this winter she took her son and killed him and then committed suicide.”
Overwhelmed by a familiar pain, I had nothing to say. In my silence, she continued to share but as she did a new resolve filled those tear filled eyes. “So that is why I’m trying to get all the information I can about this while I am here. We’ve identified four children in our church and community that we can minister to if we have the tools. So that is why I was wondering if you thought this VBS could help us save those four. We just want to save those four. We can’t lose any more families because we didn’t know what to do.”
I spent lots of time with her that day and she stopped by the booth several times during the week. After explaining the benefits of the VBS resource, we talked about stress and grief as I willed all the information from my Pastoral Counseling class to the front of my brain. But the truth of the matter is that I understood not only the desperation of that ministry but also the hopelessness of that mother.
I know the desperation that comes with being at the end of your physical and emotional resources. I understand the depth of loneliness that can creep up unexpectedly from behind. I remember when invitations to birthday parties quit coming, as we began to slowly lose our peer group. And I know what it is like to try and visit the one place believers in Jesus go for hope and be told that the church isn’t equipped for children like yours.
And when there is no hope in Jesus, there is no hope at all.
The most startling part is that this is not an isolated incident. It happens in Lawrenceville, Georgia and Huntsville, Alabama. From Michigan to Illinois to Los Angeles, California the desperation is wide spread. Before you start a stinging reply, I realize there is more at play here than just autism or special needs and that these mothers had to be in a fragile mental state to take the lives of their children. But I humbly submit, from this side of the fragility, that they probably didn’t leave the hospital with that new born baby all those years ago thinking they would be in this position one day.
No one prepared them for twenty plus years of sleepless nights…or the divorce…or how little their family would understand the daily steeplechase their life would become. They received no formalized training before taking that child home that would even begin to equip them for the job ahead of them. And I call it a job because it is their – track with me here – full time job. It’s nearly impossible to find a job that will allow you to be at home when your special needs child is during their school years. After school programs and daycares balk at the prospect of adding special needs children to their roster, again stating that they are under-resourced and not equipped to manage these kids. And even if you can find work during those school years, at age 22 everything changes. Suddenly your child ages out of the school system and then you understand what under-resourced really means as you and your child stay home all day and neither of you can work or plan for a future.
But all is not lost. In the eyes of that bewildered children’s minister I find hope. Churches are beginning to recognize that:
- 1 in 5 children are diagnosed with a disability
- More than 11 million Americans need assistance with everyday activities because of a disability
- Families with special needs children have a higher than average level of stress in the home
- When a child with special needs is born into a marriage or a child becomes disabled through accident or disease, 4 out of 5 (80%) of those marriages end in divorce (90% when the disability is autism)
- One study revealed that mothers of special needs children live, on average, 10 years less than mothers of comparable health because of the elevated cortisol levels in their system
- And these families are often turned away from well-meaning churches full of earnest Christian people because they are uninformed, under-resourced and ill-equipped to minister to this population
This story, and many others like it, is why I do what I do. Seeking to resource the church is my primary goal. One of the best ways to do this is through relationship. At PURE Ministries we have created a network of churches that are doing ministry to these hurting families. Suddenly, churches don’t just have to figure it out as they go along anymore. They can have a relationship with another Body of Christ who can identify with that problem and tell a church how they approached ministering to that PURE person and their family. Additionally, more resources are provided and are under development at PURE Ministries at no cost for churches.
The Shaping Special Hearts Show on blogtalk radio is an effort to continue conversations about special needs ministry. Each guest brings with them years of ministry or special needs experience. We’ve discussed curriculum and classroom adaptation, ministering to families in crisis, making church events inclusive to special needs families, respite care and many other topics. These conversations are a FREE downloadable resource for churches and individuals seeking information and looking for relationships they can cultivate to equip themselves for ministry.
I believe Christ’s church can be an answer for the pain of this world – even the pain that renders mothers of PURE children without hope. And together, we can save those four and so many more.